The Pope and Mrs. Shiavo

Terry Schiavo  has passed, and the pope is not far behind. As if in rebuttal, the little tufts of grass on my lawn are puffing up and greening in a small pageant of renewal.

To obsess as a culture, a world, over a life over or nearly over seems odd, misplaced, as lives in full are threatened daily, hourly, by the very circumstances we create for ourselves–in war, poverty, and all those conditions and crimes we assign to the realm of the inevitable.

And here are those crying, mourning souls all bent out of shape over ends which truly are, or were, inevitable. Schiavo has been, from her own perspective, gone for 15 years. Now her body can rest too, its marionette strings cut, the puppeteers given the pink slip. They will find another poor soul to symbolize before too long, and we’ll start this sidewalk theatre over again.

The Pope, in an odd convergence, has a feeding tube inserted as they remove Schiavo’s. He too is on that inevitable path, but why not keep him alive? He is alive, after all, not dead like Schiavo was. Yet the same madness that insisted on animating her corpse for fifteen years may steal the life from His Holiness prematurely, because just as the Catholic law forbids taking–or preventing–life against God’s will to create it, it also forbids “extraordinary means” for preserving life against God’s will to end it. The philosophy is simple: don’t interfere with God’s process for life. But medicine complicates the question, and now, suddenly, it seems we need an answer.

Do we? How do we formulate a single answer for conditions so wide-ranging in their prognoses, and in the quality of the life we may save? Do we revive our 93-year-old grandma after her third heart attack, or do we accept the body’s end? Do we pull the plug on 60-year-old Dad because, even though there’s a chance he could recover, he’s costing $12,000 a week to keep alive?

The Pope wants his suffering to symbolize Christ’s suffering, he wants to share it and display it to the world in a show of faith. Now, he is silent. Like it or not, others will have to decide for him how long the show must go on. And, not incidentally, the church needs a pope. One who talks. Can he keep his job with a ventilator down his throat? If he’s relieved, will his suffering still symbolize Christ’s? Or is he at that point just a disturbed, dying old man? I don’t want to answer. But the questions do not go away.

Schiavo may or may not have wanted her life ended once her brain was beyond recovery. To my mind, it makes little difference what they did or didn’t do once she reached that point. We have certain predilections when we live, and once we’re gone they really don’t matter. Not to us. But they matter to the living. Now if only the living who have the luxury to worry about such things could get excited about what the rest of the living want–food, homes, safety, good government, and all those things that make life worthwhile.


It’s the oddest thing living in a state of ill health. Having had a pretty much completely healthy life until recently, I had no experience with “chronic” health problems, as so many unfortunates do. It has kept me from these writings, from nearly all things that I do for pleasure, for months. And now it appears to be over.

I don’t think I want to get into the nature of the problem itself. I’m feeling better now, so it’s as though it never happened. I just recently read some writer’s “voyage back from addiction,” with all the mundane details of how heroin ruined his life etcetera, and oh how pathetic I was, and all that. It may sell newspapers, since folks love to read about someone more down and out than they are, but to me–a Plainsman after all–such confessionals erode one’s dignity.

Suffice to say I’m back to being me. I don’t want to dwell on it; but I’m writing of it now as a kind of farewell to paranoia, to daily pain, to endless doctor visits, to awkward and embarrassing medical procedures.

So let’s just be done with it, and be thankful for that wonderful feeling of the keys under my fingertips, tapping out my thoughts so obediently.

What I find remarkable is how easy it is to shift from a day-to-day existence to a “here and now” existence in the face of a possible life-threatening situation. It became, for me anyway, nearly impossible to think seriously about anything more than a few weeks into the future. Long-range planning seemed naively idealistic. Better to just get through this week, see the doctor, then we’ll move on from there. And any event supposed to be pleasant is never fully pleasant, tinged as it is with thoughts of impermanence. You sit at the dinner party, everyone laughing and talking, and you hear them, and you even join in, but your mind keeps butting in, whispering to you that “sure, this is nice, but what if it’s the last time for you? What if you learn the awful truth tomorrow and become incapable of enjoying a single moment free from thoughts of an impending death?”

Melodramatic, to be sure, but that’s how my inner mind works under stress, not allowing me to take “focus” off the problem. It’s a personal assistant who won’t quit bugging me about my “twelve o’clock with a Mr. Death?” or “Yes, I have a Grim Reaper here to see you? Says he has an appointment?”¬† I’ve even considered the idea that I’m a hypochondriac, that this stuff is all in my mind and I just need to snap out of it. But then I remember the pain, and the hospital stays, and the bills. Yep, I’m forced to admit, I’ve got some problems.

But as with another near encounter with the Undiscovered Country a few years ago, there is a pleasant by-product to a reprieve from the self-imposed death sentence. It’s like getting a promotion when you thought you were going to be fired, like getting probation instead of the chair; it’s another chance and the proverbial clean slate.

And so I keep moving toward my ultimate goal, which I think I’ve outlined here before, of living deliberately. I get closer to a life of the here and now, because I’ve been so close to feeling like life could be gone forever. Each day now I am aware of my luck at being alive, of the comforts of my home, of the love of my family–all that corny stuff. Though there are many who would probably feel cheated or like some kind of failure living a life as simple as mine, I can’t get past being immensely grateful for another day free from pain and anxiety. I wake up, I feel normal–and hey, it’s a great day. Can’t complain, as they say.

So the ugly here and now of existence, living in constant pain and fear of serious illness, gives way to the beautiful here and now of existence: of feeling rapturously relaxed during dinner with friends, or engaging in a calm and sweet conversation with my daughter, free of those background thoughts of dread.

Free from fear, thus free to live. That’s all I need for now.